Speaking in New Delhi at the launch of Brigadier (retd) Gurmeet Kanwal’s The New Arthashastra, Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar speculated on nuclear policy, referring to India’s long-standing pledge not to use nuclear weapons first but only to retaliate to their use by an adversary.

“Why a lot of people say that India has no-first-use policy. Why should I bind myself to a… I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly. This is my thinking. Some of them may immediately tomorrow flash that Parrikar says that nuclear doctrine has changed. It has not changed in any government policy but my concept, I am also an individual. And as an individual, I get a feeling sometime why do I say that I am not going to use it first. I am not saying that you have to use it first just because you don’t decide that you don’t use it first. The hoax can be called off.”

These meandering remarks, redolent of Donald Trump’s own statements on the issue, are troubling for a host of reasons. Ministers cannot simply moot wild deviations from policy and then, as Parrikar did, declare that it was merely their personal view. Such a practice erodes collective cabinet responsibility and sends profoundly confusing signals, in an area – nuclear policy – where the signals you send to adversaries are of the utmost important.

Moreover, it is downright bizarre for Parrikar to suggest that no-first-use is merely the inference of “a lot of people”. It was stated to Parliament by Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998, formally set out in India’s draft 1999 doctrine, repeated in the 2003 statement on doctrine by the Cabinet Committee on Security, proposed as a global norm by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in April 2014, praised as “a reflection of our cultural inheritance” by Narendra Modi that same month, and affirmed by the Ministry of External Affairs this year.

Parrikar may consider himself to be doing no more than probing an intellectual point of interest, but the effect is to erode a bipartisan, cross-government policy that has evolved over 16 years. If this is a deliberate effort at signalling, then I can think of few less competent ways of doing so.

Long-standing debate

However, we should recognise that Parrikar is channeling a long-standing debate in India, one that goes back to long before India became a declared nuclear-armed state, and in which some of India’s most important nuclear thinkers have played a key role.

The case in favour of no-first-use is simple enough. At a public level, it presents India as a responsible nuclear state, and so furthers broader goals such as civil nuclear commerce and entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. At the level of defence, India is a large country that can withstand conventional attack to a greater degree than those, like Pakistan, France, or Britain, which rely or have relied on threats of first use. In terms of strategic stability, an arsenal that only needs to respond to an attack is easier and safer to run than one which is on constant alert, ready to pre-empt an adversary. This is especially so for a country like India, which has sought to preserve tight civilian control over nuclear forces. An arsenal with no-first-use can also be smaller, as it doesn’t need to target hundreds of enemy weapons on their launch sites. Both of these things can put an adversary at ease – if, of course, they believe your pledge – and, therefore, avert a costly arms-race. President Barack Obama considered introducing no-first-use during his last year in office, though ultimately it would present serious complications to the USA’s so-called “extended deterrence” over foreign allies.

Many Indians have considered, but rejected, these ideas. For a full and detailed assessment of this Indian debate over nuclear doctrine, see this writer’s essay for the Stimson Centre. But a brief summary follows.

In his recent book Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, the former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon includes an entire chapter titled “Why India Pledges No First Use”. In that, he recalls former Atomic Energy Commission chairman Raja Ramanna and Chief of Army Staff K Sundarji debating over a drink in the mid-1980s.

“For Sundarji, the attraction of an Indian atom bomb was its possible military use to neutralise Chinese conventional superiority”. 

In some circumstances, such as a Chinese invasion of Indian territory, this could entail using nuclear weapons first. Ramanna disagreed, seeing the bomb as a political weapon. By the late 1990s, the latter view, most powerfully supported by the strategist K Subrahmanyan, prevailed. But even after India’s nuclear tests in 1998, there were moments of confusion.

In his seminal book India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation, George Perkovich describes how Vajpayee’s declaration that “we will not hesitate to use these weapons in self-defence”, issued immediately after the 1998 tests, had to be hastily modified by his office, for fear that it might indicate a willingness to use them first against merely conventional threats.

Several years after that, the cabinet added the proviso that chemical and biological – not just nuclear – attack might provoke an Indian nuclear response too, effectively diluting the pledge to bring it closer to American doctrine. At around the same time, the National Security Advisory Board recommended that

“India must consider withdrawing from this commitment as the other nuclear weapons-states have not accepted this policy”.

Recent statements

Other doubts followed.

In 2011, former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, who had played a formative role in Indian nuclear policy after 1998, argued in Parliament that no-first-use was “greatly in need of revision”, and “overtaken by events”.

In 2014, the BJP manifesto promised to “revise and update” Indian nuclear doctrine in light of “challenges of current times”, with No First Use reportedly the target. This was quickly withdrawn, but it indicated an appetite for change. In June that year, Lieutenant General (retd) BS Nagal, who had served as India’s Strategic Forces Commander from 2008-10 and subsequently as head of a nuclear cell within the Indian Prime Minister’s Office, published an important and radical article in Force magazine. Nagal set out six major problems with no-first-use – including that it was “morally wrong” to allow the enemy to hit you first – and urged a shift to “ambiguity”. This is much the same as Parrikar’s mangled point.

Finally, we should note that some people have sought to preserve the diplomatic and reputational advantages of no-first-use, while gutting it in practice. In 2012, the think-tank Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies released an “alternative nuclear blueprint” that reiterated the pledge, but said it would be compatible with striking first if an adversary was merely connecting warheads to missiles in a crisis. Indeed, Menon takes the same view in his book, saying explicitly that

“there is a potential gray area as to when India would use nuclear weapons first against NWS [nuclear weapons state]”. 

He goes on to explain:

“India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against an NWS that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that an adversary’s launch was imminent”. 

He adds, enigmatically,

“India’s present public nuclear doctrine is silent on this scenario”. 

The public statements of doctrine suggest otherwise, implying that the government either takes a radical interpretation of these, or has a considerably more nuanced classified private doctrine. On the most charitable of views, we might speculate that Parrikar was referring, if ham-fistedly, to one or the other of these possibilities.

I have my own doubts that India will budge on no-first-use, at least publicly. There is too much at stake at present. India is determined to project an image of nuclear responsibility, to reinforce its bid for NSG membership, and there is uncertainty around the nuclear expectations of a new US administration. But the very fact that we have now had Jaswant Singh, BS Nagal, Shivshankar Menon, and now Manohar Parrikar probe no-first-use is, surely, enough to provoke serious thinking in Rawalpindi and Beijing.

Shashank Joshi is Senior Fellow at Royal United Services Institute and author of Indian Power Projection: Ambition, Arms and Influence.